Authors: Stephen King
“All right.” Billy tucks the cell number into his Dalton Smith wallet, behind his Dalton Smith credit cards. “Take care of yourself, Nick.”
Billy waits, curious about what else Nick has to say.
“It was never because K didn't want to pay you the million-five. That's pocket change to him. It was because he insisted you be hit once the job was done. Said he wasn't going to make the same mistake he made with Allen. You get that, right?”
“Yes.” And Nick went along with it. He gets that, too.
“Does your Edward Woodley name still work? The account in Barbados?”
“Yes.” Although it's been dormant except for token deposits and withdrawals since 2014 or 2015.
“Check it tomorrow. Thank God you didn't kill Mark Abromowitz. He ain't great and he ain't made, but he's what I got since Pigs went to SA. All I can transfer right now and be safe is three hundred thousand, but I'll put in more when I can. You'll eventually get your million-five.”
For once in your life be honorable
, Billy told him when he gave Nick back his life, and damned if the man isn't trying, in the only way he knows how. Money.
“You're not going to say thank you and I don't need you to,” Nick says. “You're a good workman, Billy. You did the job.”
Billy pushes END CALL without saying goodbye.
He cleans himself up with the wipes and baby oil as well as he can, then showers until the brown water running down the drain is mostly clear. But he still gets more smeg on the two bath towels he uses to dry off.
Alice asked him if he'd be able to sleep and he said yes, but for a long time he can't. The time he spent at Promontory Pointâprobably only an hour, maybe even less, but it seemed like fiveâ
keeps running through his mind. Especially going for Edison. The flying splinters. The flushing toilet.
I thought four made guys was pretty serious
, Nick said, but Sal the gate guard never got the Mossie off his shoulder, Frank never turned around, and Reggie wasn't carrying, had to go for the boss's hideout gun instead. Only Dana Edison was serious; he took his gun into the crapper with him. And Marge, of course. She was
serious, and she had seen through his disguise almost immediately.
Leave a good tip for the housekeeper, he thinks. Leave a twenty.
He rolls over and is on the edge of sleep when something comes to him that he doesn't like and he rolls on his back again, staring up into the darkness. No, he doesn't like it at all. He left Shan's picture of Freddy the Flamingoâaka Dave the Flamingoâtaped to the dash of that old truck. He had time to take it but it never even crossed his mind. All he wanted right then was to get the fuck gone.
Forget it, he tells himself. It means nothing.
This may be true, but it doesn't help. Because it isâ
, he guesses that's the correct tense nowâpink like the baby shoe in Fallujah. The one he didn't have when they were ambushed in the Funhouse. He has lost another good luck charm. He can tell himself that's nothing but superstition, no different than folks believing there were ghosts in that old hotel in Sidewinder that burned, but it makes him feel bad. All else aside, that picture was made for him out of love.
Go to sleep, asshole, Billy thinks.
He finally does but wakes up in the dead ditch of the morning, mouth dry, hands clenched. The dream was so vivid that at first he's not sure if he's in a Ramada Inn or his Gerard Tower office. He was working on his story and it must have been early days, because he was still writing in his
persona. There came a knock at the door. He answered it, expecting Ken Hoff or Phil Stanhope, more likely Hoff. But it was neither of them. It was Marge, in the big blue dress she was wearing when he approached the Promon
tory Point service entrance. Only instead of a sombrero she had a Vegas Golden Knights gimme cap jammed down over her hair and instead of a trowel she'd got Sal's Mossberg.
“You forgot the flamingo, you fucking fuck,” she said, and raised the shotgun. The barrel looked as big as the entrance to the Eisenhower Tunnel.
I pulled out of the dream before she could fire, Billy thinks as he walks to the bathroom. While he pees he thinks of Rudy Bell, aka Taco Bell. Bad dreams were common currency in Iraq, especially during the battle for Fallujah, and Taco believed (or said he believed) that if you died in a nightmare, you could actually die in your rack.
“Frightened to death, my man,” Tac said. “What a way to go, huh?”
But I got out of this one before she could pull the trigger, Billy thinks as he trudges back to bed. She was a piece of work, though. Made Dana Edison with his prissy little manbun look like a streetcorner hood.
The room is cold, but he doesn't bother turning on the heater because it will probably rattleâmotel wall units
rattle. He snuggles under the blankets and goes to sleep almost at once. There are no more dreams.
Alice votes for fried egg sandwiches from a drive-thru instead of a sitdown breakfast because she wants to get on the road right away. “I want to see the mountains again. I really love them, even though I had to gasp for air until I got used to the altitude.”
Billy smiles and says, “Okay, let's go.”
Shortly after they cross the Colorado line, Billy hears his laptop give a single ding-dong chime for the first time inâ¦ he can't re
member how long. Maybe years. He pulls over at the next turnout, gets it out of the back seat, and opens it. The ding-dong means he's gotten an email from one of his several blind accounts, this one [email protected] The message is from Travertine Enterprises. It's an outfit he's never heard of, but he has no doubt who's behind it. He double-clicks and reads.
“What?” Alice asks.
He shows her. Travertine Enterprises has put three hundred thousand dollars in the account of Edward Woodley at the Royal Bank of Barbados. The only notation is “For services rendered.”
“Did that come from who I think it came from?” Alice asks.
“No doubt,” Billy says. They get rolling again. It's a beautiful day.
They get to Bucky's place around five in the afternoon. Billy has called ahead from Rifle with an ETA along with a head-ups about their new ride, and Bucky's standing in the dooryard waiting for them. He's dressed in jeans and a fleece jacket, looking nothing at all like the man who used to live and work in New York. Maybe he's his better self out here, Billy thinks. He knows that Alice is.
She's out of the car almost before Billy can come to a stop. Bucky holds his arms wide and shouts “Hey, Cookie!” She runs into them, laughing as he enfolds her.
Look at that, Billy thinks. Would you look at that.
They stay with Bucky at his mountain retreat, long enough to get snowed in (for a day) by an early season blizzard. The ferocity of the storm amazes, delights, and terrifies Alice all at the same time. Yes, she says, she's seen snow in Rhode Island, plenty of it, but never snow like this with drifts higher than her head. When it stops, she and Bucky go out and make snow angels in the backyard. After extended pleading, the hired assassin joins them. Two days later the temperatures are back in the sixties and the snow is melting. The woods are full of birdsong and the sound of meltwater.
Billy never meant to stay so long. It's Alice's doing. She tells him that he needs to finish his story. Her words are one thing. The quiet tone of conviction in which they are spoken is another, and more convincing. It's too late to turn back now, she says, and after some consideration, Billy decides she's right.
There's no electricity in the little log cabin where he wrote about the Funhouse and what happened there, so he lugs in a battery-powered space heater that warms the place up enough so he can write. If he leaves his jacket on, at least. Someone has hung up that picture of the hedge animals again, and Billy could swear that the lions are closer now, their eyes redder. The hedge bull is between them instead of behind them.
It was that way before, Billy insists. It must have been, because pictures don't change.
This is true, in a rational world it
be true, but he still doesn't like the picture. He takes it down (again) and turns it face to the wall (again). He opens his story document and scrolls down to where he left off. At first the work is slow and he keeps glancing into the far corner, as if expecting that picture to be magically hanging there again. It's not, and after half an hour or so it's only the words on the screen he's looking at. The door of memory opens and he goes through. For most of October he spends his days on the far side of that door, even trudging up to the cabin in a pair of boots borrowed from Bucky on the day of the big snowstorm.
He writes about the rest of his tour in the desert, and how he decidedâalmost literally at the last momentânot to re-up. He writes about the culture shock of returning to America, where nobody worried about snipers and IEDs and nobody jerked and put his hands to his head if a car backfired. It was like the war in Iraq didn't exist and the things his friends died for didn't matter. He writes about that first job, assassinating the Jersey guy who liked to beat up women. He writes about how he met Bucky and he writes about all the jobs that followed. He doesn't make himself sound better than he was and writes it all too fast to come out clean, but it mostly does anyway. It comes out like the water running downhill through the woods when the snow melts.
He's vaguely aware that Bucky and Alice have formed a firm bond. He thinks that for Alice it's like finding a fine replacement for the father she lost early. For Bucky it's like she's the daughter he never had at all. Billy doesn't detect the slightest sexual vibe between them, and he's not surprised. He's never seen Bucky with a woman, and whileâgrantedâhe never saw Bucky face to face that often, the man rarely talked about women when they were together. Billy thinks Bucky Hanson might be gay, his two marriages notwithstanding. All he knows, all he cares about, is that Alice is happy.
But Alice's happiness isn't his priority during that October. The
story is, and the story is now a book. No doubt about it. That no one will ever see it (except maybe for Alice Maxwell) doesn't faze Billy in the slightest. It's the doing that's important, she was right about that.
A week or so before Halloween, on a day of brilliant sunshine and strong upcountry winds, Billy writes about how he and Alice (he has changed her name to Katherine) arrived at Bucky's cabin (name changed to Hal) and how Bucky held out his armsâ
âand she ran into them. It's as good a place to stop as any, he thinks.
He saves his copy to a thumb drive, closes up his laptop, goes to turn off the space heater, and stops. The picture of the hedge animals is back on the wall in that far corner of the cabin, and the hedge lions are closer still. He'd swear to it. That night, over dinner, he asks Bucky if he put it back up. Bucky says he didn't.
Billy looks at Alice, who says, “I don't even know what you're talking about.”
Billy asks where the picture came from. Bucky shrugs. “No idea, but I think those hedge animals used to be in front of the old Overlook. The hotel that burned. I'm pretty sure the picture was in the cabin when I bought this place. I don't go up there much when I'm here. I call it the summerhouse, but it always seems cold, even in summer.”
Billy has noticed the same thing, although he chalked it up to the late season. Still, he has done amazing work there, almost a hundred pages. Creepy picture and all. Maybe a chilly story needs a chilly writing room, he thinks. It's as good an explanation as any, since the whole process is a mystery to him, anyway.
Alice has made peach cobbler for dessert. As she brings it to the table, she says, “Are you finished, Billy?”
He opens his mouth to say he is, then changes his mind. “Almost. I have a few loose ends to tie up.”
The next day is cold, but when Billy gets to the log cabin he doesn't turn on the space heater and he doesn't take the picture down, either. He has decided that Bucky's so-called summerhouse is haunted. He's never believed in such things before, but he does now. It's not the picture, or not just the picture. It's been a haunted year.
He sits down in the room's only chair and thinks. He doesn't want to use Alice in what's aheadâthe end of his businessâbut in this cold room with its strange atmosphere, he sees that he must. He sees something else, as well. She will want to, because Roger Klerke is not only a bad man, he's almost certainly the worst one Billy has ever been hired to take out. The fact that this time he's hired himself is beside the point.
I keep thinking about that horrible man with a child
, Alice said.
He deserves to die
She didn't want Tripp Donovan dead, and she might not have wanted Klerke dead either if he'd stuck to girls who were seventeen or sixteen, maybe even fifteen. She would have wanted him to pay a price, yes, but not the ultimate one. Only Klerke didn't stick to those. Klerke had wanted
to see what it was like
Billy sits with his hands on his knees and growing numb at the fingertips, his breath frosting the air with each exhale. He thinks of a girl not much older than Shanice Ackerman brought to that little house in Tijuana. He thinks of her holding a stuffed animal for comfort, probably a teddy bear instead of a pink flamingo. He thinks of her hearing heavy footsteps coming down the hall. He doesn't want to think about those things, but he does. Maybe he needs to. And maybe this haunted room with its haunted picture on the wall helps him do it.
He takes out his wallet and finds the slip of paper he wrote Giorgio's phone number on. He makes the call knowing the chances of actually reaching the man are small. He may be in the gym of
his fat farm prison, or in the pool, or dead of a heart attack. But Giorgio answers on the second ring.
“Hello, Mr. New York Agent. It's Dave Lockridge. Guess what? I finished my book.”
“Billy, Jesus Christ! You might not believe this but I'm glad you're alive.”
Damned if he doesn't sound younger, Billy thinks. And stronger, too.
“I'm also glad I'm alive,” Billy says.
“I didn't want to screw you over that way. You have to believe that. But Iâ”
“You had to make a choice and you made it,” Billy says. “Did I like being fucked over by someone I trusted? Do I now? No. But I told Nick it was water under the bridge and I meant it. Only you owe me something and I'm hoping you're man enough to pay up. I need some information.”
There's a brief pause. Then, “My phone's secure. How about yours?”
“I'll trust you on that. We're talking about Klerke, right?”
“Yes. Do you know where he is?”
“He doesn't come to Vegas anymore, so it'll be either Los Angeles or New York. I could find out. He's not hard to keep track of.”
“Do you know who supplies him with girls in LA and NYC?”
“I used to do it with Judy before I retired.” He says it with no discomfort that Billy can detect.
“Judy Blatner? Nick says she doesn't touch jailbait.”
“She doesn't. Nothing under eighteen. And that used to be good enough for Klerke. Then he wanted younger. He'd call. Say he wanted dumplings. That was the code word.”
Dumplings, Billy thinks. Jesus.
“Judy knows guys that are willing to find girls like that. Sometimes I'd deal with Klerke. Sometimes she would do it herself.”
“Does Judy also know guys in Tijuana?”
Giorgio lowers his voice even though his phone is secure. “You're thinking of the little girl. That didn't have anything to do with Judy, or Nick, or me. That was something the cartel arranged. At Klerke's request.”
“Let me be sure I have it straight. If he's in LA and got the itch for a dumpling, he'd call you or Judy and one of you would put him in touch with someone there. Except what we're really talking about is a pimp.” Billy hunts for the phrase he wants. It goes with dumplings, which isn't surprising. “A chicken-rancher.”
“Right. And if he's on the east coast at his place in Montauk Point, he'd get the guy from New York. How many dates Klerke's arranged since I left I don't know.”
Dates, Billy thinks. “He actually gets concierge service?”
“You could call it that. It's what he pays for. Much money changes hands, Billy.”
Now comes the big question. “Does Judy ever call
? Like if she's heard about someone who'd be in his sweet spot?”
“It happens from time to time, sure. More often now that he's reached an age when getting his noodle to stand up is a little more difficult.”
“If you called Judy and said you had a girl he'd like, someone
special, would she pass it on?”
There's silence while Giorgio thinks it over. Then he says, “She would. She'd smell a ratâher nose is what you'd call exquisiteâbut she'd do it. She hates that guy because of what he did in TJ and if she thought someone was trying to fuck him up, maybe even arrange a hit on him, she'd shout hooray. I feel about the same.”
Although it never stopped you doing biz with him, Billy thinks. Or her. “Okay. I'm going to call you back.”
“I'll be here. I have no place to go and don't want to. I hated it at first but now I love it. Like alcoholics love sobriety once they get a hold on it, I guess.”
“How much weight have you lost?”
“A hundred and ten pounds,” Giorgio says with perhaps justifiable pride. “I got another ninety to go.”
“You sound good. Not so wheezy. Maybe if you lose the weight you can skip the operation.”
“Nope. My liver's shot and it's not coming back. They've scheduled the op for two days after
, so you better finish whatever business you have with me before then. The doc down here is so honest it's brutal. He's saying my odds are sixty-forty against coming through.”
“I'll get back to you.” But I won't bother praying for you, Billy thinks.
“I hope you get that child-molesting perv.”
Who you worked for, Billy thinks again.
He doesn't have to say it because Giorgio says it for him. “Sure, I carried his water. It was a lot of money, and I wanted to live.”
“Understood.” Billy thinks, But hell will still be waiting for you, Georgie. And if there is such a place, I'll probably meet you there. We'll have a drink. Brimstone on the rocks.
“I always had an idea that stupid act of yours was a shuck.”
Billy says, “We'll talk soon.”
“Just don't wait too long,” Giorgio says.
It's time to fill Alice in on what he has in mind, and Bucky deserves to be a part of the conversation. He tells them at the kitchen table, over coffee. When he finishes, he advises her to think about it. Alice says she doesn't need to, she's in.
Bucky gives Billy a reproachful look that says
you turned her to the dark side after all
, but he doesn't say anything.
“You said you got carded in bars, didn't you?” Billy asks her.
“Yes, but I've only been in a couple. I only turned twenty-one the month before youâ¦ you know, met me.”
“Never had a fake ID?”
“Wouldn't have worked,” Bucky says. “I mean, look at her.”
They both look at her. Alice blushes and casts her eyes down.
“How old would you say?” Billy asks Bucky. “I mean, if you didn't know?”
Bucky considers. “Eighteen. Nineteen at a stretch. Probably not twenty.”
Billy says to her, “How young could you
yourself look? If you really tried?”
The question interests her enough to forget she's being studiedâface and bodyâby two men. Of course the question interests her. At twenty-one she has undoubtedly considered how she might make herself look older and more sophisticated, but younger? Why would she?
“I could get an elastic binder to make my boobs smaller, I guess. The kind that trans men wear.” The flush returns. “I know they're not that big anyway, but a binder would make me look, you know, almost flat. Isn't that what Klerke likes? And my hairâ¦” She clasps it in one hand. “I could cut it. Not pixie short, but enough to put it in a little ponytail. Like a high school girl.”
“I don't know. I'd have to think about it. No makeup, or not much. Maybe some pink bubblegummy lipstickâ¦”